Since July, the N.C. Mining and Energy Commission has received more than 200,000 public comments about its proposed fracking regulations. But when members finalize their rules this week, they will likely approve fewer than a dozen major changes.
With permitting for natural gas drilling expected to begin next spring, appointed members of the regulatory panel say they are nearly finished with their rule-making. Members held four public hearings on their regulations this year and allowed residents more than two months to submit comments online.
Commission members will consider increasing buffers between drill pads and drinking-water sources from 650 feet to 1,500 feet. They may also allow regulators to set up unannounced inspections at drill sites and order stoppages for drillers who violate state rules.
However, based on last week's meetings, members seem unlikely to heed one common request inspired by Duke Energy's coal ash spill in the Dan River in February. Many urged the regulators to ban outdoor pit storage of fracking fluids, which contains industrial chemicals that are key to the drilling process.
Opponents pointed to reports of leaking pits in other states, but members indicated any such "substantive" changes to the rules, based on state law, might force the commission to schedule further public hearings and delay future drilling. Commission members said the topic could be revived for discussion by lawmakers next year.
"The fact that the number of gas well failures in other states has been steady or has even increased in recent years, according to both industry and regulatory sources, should tell the MEC something mighty important," says Hope Taylor, executive director of Clean Water for N.C., an environmental nonprofit that opposes drilling in the state.
Taylor said it was not surprising that commission members did not announce more sweeping changes to fracking regulations, given that the panel is led by drilling supporters such as MEC Chairman Jim Womack, a county commissioner in Lee County.
Geologists expect Lee and Chatham counties to be the hub of drilling activity in the state after permitting begins next year.
"Any chance the MEC is listening or would consider a pause before rushing into permitting?" said Taylor. "Right, we all know the answer to that one."
The commission is scheduled to meet Friday, at which time they are likely to approve their recommended regulations for state lawmakers. Legislators are set to provide final passage when they reconvene in 2015.
369 Number of days since the INDY filed an open records request with Gov. Pat McCrory's office. State law requires public agencies to fill requests "as promptly as possible." McCrory's office has yet to provide the documents to the INDY.
This article appeared in print with the headline "Talk to the hand."